Sunday, August 21, 2011

Risking Foolishness (Matthew 16:13-20)

Most of you know that I was somewhat shy as a kid. I think I’ve mentioned that to you before. Back then, I was not the gregarious, sociable, outgoing person that I am today.

Have I mentioned to you the quota system under which I became a minister? Well, believe it or not there is a quota system that determines who gets the call to ministry, and on the day God called me to the ministry, God decided that the quota for outgoing extroverts had already been reached, but that a few quiet, socially awkward types were still needed. So there you go.

In school, it’s a good thing learning came early to me, because I was really scared to ask questions. My Calculus teacher said often that the only stupid question is the question that isn’t asked. Well, I had a lot of stupid questions which I kept to myself. I somehow survived high school calculus, but as soon as I put the pencil down on the final exam, most of what I learned in Calculus was gone forever.

I did learn eventually that if I sat in the front of the class, I could sometimes persuade myself to ask a question as long as I didn’t turn around and see everyone else in the room.

The problem, I guess, is that I was afraid of looking foolish.

Now, some people I know have no problem looking foolish.

Some people have no problem looking foolish, and to be honest, I sometimes catch myself living in envy of them. They are not afraid to stand up and take risks. They’re not afraid to be the life of the party. They’re not afraid to dance. They’re not afraid to ask questions. They’re not afraid to take a risk.

Peter, the disciple, has always struck me as such a person. After all, he was the one who stepped out of the boat when Jesus walked on the water. None of the other disciples did. And I certainly would not have, if I were there. I would have been there in the boat, with the rest, trying not to draw attention to myself, yet craning my neck to watch and see whether or not Peter would make a fool of himself yet again.

And he did, as we heard a few weeks ago. He stepped out onto the water, got afraid, panicked, began to sink, and cried out like a baby: “Help! Help!” Yeah, I think I and the rest of the disciples would have been inwardly laughing, shaking our heads at crazy Peter as he stumbled back into the boat, soaking wet after having attempted to walk on water.

I am not like Peter. That’s not to say I’ve never taken any risks. I’ve spoken out during a General Assembly debate before thousands of people. I’ve asked questions of biblical scholars in rooms filled with hundreds of clergy and even seminary professors. Granted, I made sure I was sitting toward the front when I asked, but still, I asked.

But I am sure – I am sure – that I would have taken the safe route if I were among the disciples when Jesus asked the questions we heard in today’s scripture.

“Who do people say that I am?” That first question is the easy one. Everyone is quick to answer. All you have to do is report what other people say, and if their answers are foolish, then it’s the other people who are made to look stupid.

“Who do people say that you are? Oh, that’s easy. Some say that you are John the Baptist. Some say that you are Elijah. Some say that you are Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. This is easy, Jesus; ask us another one!”

Some of the questions in school were this easy. “What’s the capital of Venezuela?” To find the answer, all you have to do is go look it up, see what it says in the atlas. As long as you’ve consulted the atlas, you can confidently share the right answer and avoid looking foolish.

“Who was the 7th president of the United States?” Well, check it out in the history book, and report back. As long as you do your homework, it shouldn’t be a problem.

As I mentioned, Calculus is a little harder. “What don’t you understand?” the teacher asks, and for a lot of us, the answer is, “everything.”

But the hardest questions of all are the ones that start, “What do you think…?” What do you think are the causes of the Spanish-American War? What do you think the poet means when he says this or that? What do you think about Jesus?

That’s what Jesus wanted to know from his disciples. He heard their reports about what others thought; now he wanted to know what they thought.

You can’t consult a history book or an atlas for the answer to a question like that.

The disciples were eager to answer that first question. It’s easy to say what others think. But that second question – “what do you think?” – that’s tougher.

What if your answer ends up making you look foolish?

Mark Twain said that it is better to keep your mouth shut and let everyone wonder if you are a fool than it is to open your mouth and remove all doubt. That’s good advice much of the time. But not always.

The disciples didn’t want to answer Jesus’ question. Except for Peter. Without hesitation (I would guess), Peter stood up and said, “Why, you’re the Christ! The messiah!”

The disciples were getting ready to laugh again. Thank goodness they had Peter around. Let him speak out, let him look foolish, and the rest of them come off looking, well, not-so-foolish. They turned to look at Jesus, to wait for his response.

Jesus looked at Peter and said, “Blessed are you! Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! God has blessed you, because only through my Father in heaven could you have come to that conclusion. And I tell you, you are a rock, the rock on which I will build my church. And I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

And the disciples were amazed, because Peter opened his mouth, and nothing foolish came out. Instead, they witnessed incredible spiritual insight – an insight that they, perhaps, shared, but only Peter had the boldness to go along with it and say it out loud.

Way to go, Peter! You shared your faith. You confessed Christ. You proclaimed your belief in the Messiah, the son of the living God.

And Jesus commended you, and pronounced you “blessed.”

If that were the end of the story, it would seem that the message for us is to go about telling everyone about Jesus, who he is. “Hey, did you hear? Jesus is the messiah, the son of God.” Tell everyone.

But there is, in fact, one more part to this story, one last sentence, one concluding verse. After Jesus commended Peter, “he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the messiah, the Christ.”

What? That doesn’t make sense. I thought this whole story was about confessing your faith out loud. That’s what Peter did, and it was a sign of his blessedness. Doesn’t that mean… Shouldn’t we…

No. Keep quiet. Don’t tell anyone.

Why would Jesus say this?

It wasn’t because Jesus was worried that he or his disciples might look foolish. It was too late to worry about that.

And it wasn’t because Jesus wanted to keep his identity a secret from the rest of the world. Jesus’ very existence was due to the fact that “God so loved the world,” so that can’t be it.

It was because of the profound and deep truth of Peter’s confession. Sometimes you hear something or even say something so profound that you have to stop and ponder it for awhile.

Perhaps you have read something so profoundly true that you have to stop and ponder. You try to keep reading, but your mind can’t get past that one statement.

I admit, it’s happened to me once or twice while writing a sermon. I’ve written sentences which force me to stop and say, whoa! Where did that come from? (I’d like to say that it came from my own brilliance, but I know better than that.)

And often, I will – like you – read or hear something along those lines, something so profoundly true that I can’t stop thinking about it. The words grab hold of me and will not let me go.

“Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus wants to be sure that Peter and the other disciples understand what those words mean. He wants them to allow these words to marinate in their hearts for awhile. You don’t just hear words like these and immediately go about repeating them.

The day will come, the time will come, when you will be called upon to share what you know. The time will come when you will be called upon to stand up and risk foolishness by proclaiming your faith.

But for Peter and the other disciples, they weren’t ready yet. Peter spoke a profound truth, one that may have caught him by surprise as much as it caught all the other disciples by surprise. It would take some time for the truth of what he said that day to sink in.

After telling them to keep quiet about this, Jesus then began telling and showing his disciples exactly what it means to be the Christ, the messiah, the son of the living God. He explained this truth to them, and it wasn’t always what they expected. Some aspects of what it meant to be the Christ were too much for the disciples to accept. Betrayal? Suffering? Execution? They were not ready to accept this part of the truth. Not yet. It was too much.

Peter’s confession of faith is important to us here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church. Like all Disciples congregations, affirming that confession is the only statement required of those who wish to join the church. We feel that we are called to make that confession out loud, before one another, and before the world. We are called to risk looking foolish by pledging allegiance to one who was betrayed, who suffered, and who was executed for treason on a cross, an instrument used by Rome for the most heinous crimes; and that we are called to take up our own cross as we share in Christ’s crucifixion, knowing that new life in the kingdom of God is also ours to share.

We are called to proclaim this with all the boldness of Peter; and yet, if hearing it from your lips or someone else’s lips does not startle you and force you to pause and ponder…; if these words don’t reach out and grab you and hold tightly to you every time you hear them…

Then it may be that you’re not ready. You’ve heard the truth, you’ve spoken the truth, and for that you are blessed. Ponder that for awhile. Keep learning, keep listening, keep following Jesus. For you, too, are one of Christ’s disciples.

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